Unconscious Communication in the Early Stage of Relationships

What is overtly stated is not necessarily the truth about our needs and desires.

Posted Jun 29, 2020

Most of the communication conveyed in the early part of a relationship is subtle, often indirect. We begin communicating our relational and sexual fears, wishes, desires, and expectations from the moment we meet a potential partner on a date or the moment we respond to a message sent on a dating website. Often we are unaware of what we reveal. 

Dating is a time usually fraught with vulnerability. We assume a “best foot forward” approach in an attempt to combat insecurities. Denying, avoiding, or influencing, in the end, prove useless over time in camouflaging the truth about who we are. 

It is essential to pay attention to all forms of verbal and non-verbal communication; they matter a great deal.

Idealization is potentially a red flag. Such comments as “I know we just met, but I have never met a person like you before” may delight one person but be interpreted by another as a signal to be on guard. They may ask questions like, Does the person see who I am, or is she or he longing for a partner who checks all the right boxes? Are they seeing only a fantasy? Often, when someone is elevated quickly in a relationship, it ought to signal reasons to be suspect. Does neediness blind or consume the new partner? Is the attraction real or narcissistic?

Thinking for someone, assigning preferences, and ignoring comments are also statements of indirect communication that can signal an inability to listen or a controlling maneuver. Be mindful when clearly stated likes and dislikes seem to be overlooked by a potential partner. For example: At the first meeting, Susan informs her date that cooking is not enjoyable. Bill exclaims that he will buy Susan good pots and pans for her birthday so that making meals will become more enjoyable. Some might see this as charming and thoughtful; however, others might experience it as an inability to tune in to who the person is.

Online dating is ripe with fantasy. One research team suggested that online daters “create mental constructs of their potential partners by reading their online dating profile, using that information to fill‐in‐the‐blanks of who the partner might be in the offline world” (Ramirez).

The Uh Oh Moment

Pure is the expression, “We don’t know what we don’t know.” Often, however, we do know what we try to avoid knowing. Messages are delivered anyway. The initial intuitive feeling/thought/visceral reaction is usually the truth about how we feel, what we want, or what we fear. Whether we listen or not to those truths, whether we are communicating openly, and whether the person on the receiving end is paying attention are the issues that we seem to cast aside.

Micro-expressions are defined as “fleeting emotional expressions lasting between 1/25th to 1/5th of a second ... not noticeable to the naked eye and expressed involuntarily” (Matsumoto 2018). Micro-expressions date back to Darwin’s (1872) inhibition hypothesis, which suggested that facial actions that cannot be controlled voluntarily may be involuntarily produced when individuals try to suppress their expressions (Matsumoto). 

Eventually, over time, the truth becomes revealed. It often comes in the form of conflict, disappointment, failed expectation, hurtful statements, boredom in the relationship, or waning sexual desire. Conflict and negativity may enter because we were not open to or even aware of our needs when we started on the relational path. But in time, all things become apparent. For some, the reality of incompatibility comes with a quiet distancing; for others, it is an anvil crashing down. Hurtful comments may leave both parties feeling bad and angry, yet relieved it is over. But relief comes at a painful price. 


Tripping Up in Authentic Communication

Sometimes the desperation for connection, laughter, affection, or sex prevents a reality check about the real person standing before us.

Current interpersonal issues are often a carryover from past relationships. Self-concept or fears of abandonment may interfere with decision making. Attempts to please and do the best to meet the expectations of the other in the relationship can be defensive maneuvers to combat low self-esteem or rejection. This “honeymoon” phase will fail eventually as the issues are brought to the surface, often damaging the fledgling relationship. If only we knew, we could have been honest from the beginning or ended things sooner when it became known that our partner wasn’t listening despite our authentic efforts to communicate who we are.

Sometimes, there is a heavy reliance on specific aspects of the relationship. Sex may be the draw, especially early on in dating. However, sex is a language, and relational needs are intrinsically linked. Sex may be used as the vehicle to seek connection because people are often unable to articulate or speak a relational or emotional language. Sex takes the edge off for some, but for many others having sex early on or on the first date is a relational avoidance tactic. Though sexual compatibility is a great asset, it often doesn’t work in maintaining a long term relationship.

Awareness and communication are choices, mandatory for some, but out of reach for others. There is a multitude of venues from which to choose to find a potential mate, so there is freedom from introspection about why a relationship did not work out. Technology has made it easy not to ask ourselves the more profound questions regarding compatibility, communication, or relational fears. There is always another one to take the place of the person who came before.

Authentic communication, right from the beginning of a relationship is a challenge under the best of circumstances; what each person ultimately needs and what is right is difficult to define and say out loud. When truly accurate information is possible, it is easier to assess whether the person on the other end can receive it, accept it; mutual respect and compatibility have a better opportunity to flourish. 

One final note: No harm usually occurs when taking the relationship slowly, sometimes very slowly. If you are feeling pressured then take that as a warning sign and ask for space; time will reveal a lot. Chances are you will react negatively or even aggressively if you are insecure or conflicted about asking for space and time.

References

Matsumoto, D. & H. C. Hwang. Microexpressions Differentiate Truths From Lies About Future Malicious Intent.  Frontiers in Psychology. 18 December 2018 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02545

Ramirez, A. et al. When Online Dating Partners Meet Offline: The Effect of Modality Switching on Relational Communication Between Online Daters.  Journal of Computer Mediated Communication. 17 September 2014 https://doi.org/10.1111/jcc4.12101Citations: 5